Rif War: Spain's War in the Rif of Northern Morocco, 1920-1927

One of the least cited "inter-war" conflicts which was also apart of the neo-colonialism era of the 20th century, the Rif War or Riffian Rebellion in Morocco was bloody and multi-state conflict.  Fought between Spain, the Berber-Morrocan rebel tribes under Abd el-Krim (1882-1963), and later France from 1920-1927, it is a major military conflict which often foregotten by many military historians and writers.

What began in 1920 as seemingly a rebel uprising or revolt turned into one of the first modern conflicts of the 20th century, lasting seven years with bloody battles and atrocities committed by all sides. The Rif War was a revolution, it was an insurgency, and a modernist colonial venture. It ended in 1926-1927 with a victory for the Spanish military and the allied army of France who had intervened officially in 1925 helping to defeat the rebels and pacify the Rif region of North Morocco for Spanish rule.

Spanish Legionnaires being blessed by the Legion standards and Franco, 1920 in the Rif

Spain's rule in morocco dates back as far as 1497, though in the modern age their first military engagements against the Moroccans begin in 1859. Interrupted by the great catastrophe that was the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Africanismo (African imperialism) movement picks up steam in the wake of the loss of most of Spain's other overseas colonies. Historians usually typify that a new generation of Spaniard came of age after the 1899-1900, who militarily and politically would not accept compromise in regards to more liberal policies in regards to the North Africans in particular.

The Hispano-Moroccan Wars before the Rif Rebellion (1920-1927) were brief but often violent affairs. From the first conflicts to the Rif War of the 1920's the Spanish often euphemistically referred to killing any and all rebel Moroccans by saying that the dead had been "put to the knife." This first major conflict between both sides ended in a Spanish victory at the Battle of Tétouan, 1860.

                                                General Juan Primm at Tétouan, 1860

Among this generation were men like Francisco Franco (b.1892-1975), pictured in the top photo holding the flag, who would parlay their experience in the Rif to their political advantage in the Spanish Civil War (for Franco he parlayed this into a lifelong dictatorship). Of course the Civil War would later destroy old Spanish institutions, except for the Africanismo movement, who along with the Spanish Legionnaires and many other Army officers helped to found Fascist Spain which would last until General Franco's death. Even after 1931 when the monarchy collapsed the Army and the Legion stayed mostly loyal to the Spanish Republic.

Map of North Africa, Morocco, the Rif, and Southern Spain

Franco and his mentor Jose Millan Astray (b.1879-1954), the founder of the Spanish Legion, a sort of special forces branch which really only accepts Spaniards or Spanish speaking individuals, unlike the French Foreign Legion who takes mostly any and all comers. The Legion, still operational as of today, would earn their battle honors and war slogans as the most potent and often most violent tool in Spain's military arsenal for 50 or so years after its founding in 1920, surviving 4 regimes and a Civil War.

General Jose Millan Astray, known as "The Founder" of the Spanish Foreign Legion, or "The Glorious Mutilated One" due to his more than ten or so wounds received fighting for Spain from 1896-1939.

Two other major campaigns fought in North Africa by the Spanish before the Rif War were the 1893-1894 Melilla Campaign, and another drawn out campaign from 1909-1912, which gave credence to the idea that a foreign Legion army was needed in line with a French type system to fight the conflicts away from the Spanish mainland. The Melilla campaign ended with a treaty that ceded the disputed territory to the Spanish Empire and ordered reparations from the Moroccans for the damage caused by the Riffians. The public were outraged however after news broke of the defeat and death of the governor Juan Margallo in 1893. For the rest of the 1890's the Spanish military and the navy were engaged in the Philippines, Cuba and Puerto Rico fighting rebels and later the Americans.

Period newspaper depiction of the Riffian's assault on the Spanish positions at Melilla. After the war the conflict became known as 'Margallo's War' to many

When war broke out in the Rif again in 1920, what could be called the Third Rif War, the Spanish Empire knew the Moroccans or the French, still reeling from World War I and the Versailles Treaty, would not immediately take care of the rebellion. So an expeditionary force was sent to North Africa to bolster the forces already stationed in country to defeat what they believed were disorganized and poorly equipped Riffians, as they always had before. 

Besides the Regular army (the Regulares) the Legion would be called upon to fight and to die for the sand and mountainous expanses which make up the Rif region in what is today modern Morocco. From 1920 to June 1921 the conflict was indecisive as the Spanish garrisoned the scattered outposts of the Rif, fighting off raids and skirmishes from the elusive Riffians which were costly on both sides. The Disaster of Annual began triumphantly enough when a 25,000 strong Spanish Army under General Manuel Fernandez Silvestre marched into Rif territory to defeat and kill Abd el-Krim and his brothers. The Battle of Annual would end in catastrophe for the Spanish army which signaled the greatest threat to Spanish rule in Northern Morocco.

General Fernandez

General Fernandez Silvestre had been known as an experienced officer of the cavalry by all accounts, not unlike General George A. Custer who suffered a similar, unknown fate at his great defeat, the Battle of Little Bighorn 1876 June 25-26. When the news broke in the Spanish mainland ala Margallo’s War, the Spanish public were outraged yet again that an entire army could be defeated and slaughtered by the Rif tribesman, viewed as savages by many Spaniards in the military and government. El-Krim’s harka or war party of around 3,000-4,000 men helped to defeat this larger Spanish army through scattered guerilla attacks and assaults which eventually put the entire force into retreat, sources that the total number of Spanish killed numbers somewhere between 8,000-15,000 killed by early August 1921 [Jose Alvarez The Betrothed of Death (Greenwood Press, Westport CT) 2001]

Riffian tribesmen showing how they best liked to fight, and win during the Riffian War

General Fernandez Silvestre either died by his own hand or was killed by a Riffian rifle or dagger depending on the source, between July 22-23 as his army retreated in panicked flight across the desert. Alvarez recounts how many of the Regulares threw down their Mauser rifles while some dismantled them, scattering the pieces save for bolt which they carried with them. From after the Battle of Annual to 1923 and early 1924, the war remained static with heavy casualties on both sides while the Spanish retreated and regrouped hoping to break the Riffians in another decisive campaign or battle. The Spanish Legion made their impact felt as did Spanish tanks, planes, and even poison gas which killed and maimed thousands perhaps. Many of the total war tactics and atrocities committed by the Spanish came about because of the confirmation of the unrecognized Rif Republic with Abd el-krim as it's head of state in 1923.

Abd el-Krim

In the same year Miguel Primo de Rivera (b.1870-1930) became prime minister as a military dictator, known in Spanish as a caudillo, a type of aristocratic baron who was also a general or warlord. In 1925 both Spain and France decided to pool their full military efforts in a drive to end Abd el-krim's rebellion. The Rif War’s conclusion saw a two front conflict fought by the Riffians who attacked and then retreated from French from the South, meanwhile fighting the Spanish in the North.

Spanish troops came by the sea in the Alhucemas Bay Landings of 1925 and then the French came by way of Morocco and their other military outposts in North Africa presumably. From 1926-1927 the rebellion was brutally suppressed despite Abd el-krim’s surrender to the French in 1926. The Spanish Legion solidified their reputation of resolve and loyalty to whomever led Spain, tarnished only during the Spanish Civil War, and became an important cultural symbol of the earliest roots of Spanish fascism one could argue.

How the Rif War was fought and why would be very important to Spanish culture and the culture of their military into the fateful years of the 1930s and 1940’s highlighted by the battle for Spain during the Leftist-Rightist Civil War, 1936-1939. In our modern interpretation the legacy of the Rif War is one of carnage, brutality, and imperialist ambition yet again clashing with rebel independence movements bent on attaining the two tenets of Revolution, freedom and liberty. Today however the citizens of an independent Morocco can look back on the fact that they rebelled and for a time bested, and eventually did triumph over their colonizers whatever the odds.

Spanish and French rule ended in 1956 when both countries recognized Moroccan independence. A low intensity conflict would be fought from 1957-1958 when Moroccan forces would threaten Spain’s last great African possessions in West Africa. After further diplomatic treaties into the 1970’s following the Ifni War of 57-58, Spain today controls several tiny autonomous regions in the extreme north of Africa; the most prominent is Ceuta still.

Ceuta's Flag

Another important legacy of course would be that General Franco who had held several important posts during the Rif War, eventually used his status and reputation to ascend not only into total power in Spain but to become one of the most important figures in Iberian politics and diplomacy from 1939-1945 when he led Nationalist Spain from the ashes of the Civil War to a small but prominent role as an ideological supporter of the Axis powers during World War 2. Franco nevertheless kept his nation out of the Second World War except for the Spanish Legionnaires and regular army men who volunteered to fight for the German armies on the Eastern Front from 1941-1943 in the Blue Division.

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